This week’s pick: “When I Was Cruel (No. 1),” from Cruel Smile (2002)
Gary Stewart: Have you ever tried to convince someone you’ve changed for the better—that you’re not the man/woman you used to be—but then realized you were trying too hard, you overcompensated so much, that you gave lie to any reasonable concept of personal change?
To further complicate things, what if the unsavory side of your personality had an upside? What if being difficult, arrogant, and controlling had their appeal (at least initially, until you overplayed your hand)? It’s like that familiar high school reunion story, where you reconnect with the high school bully only to find he’s become a nice guy who was covering up the same insecurities you felt back then. While you may have closure now, you sort of regret letting go of that narrative. You miss his inner asshole—you got something out of him being the bad guy.
Into that mindset comes “When I Was Cruel (No. 1), which is catchy, angry, and conciliatory in alternating but almost equal measures, reminding us that people don’t change—at least not as quickly or as much as they think they have. It’s also another example of an Elvis Costello song that uses the unreliable narrator and makes the listener more than a little culpable.
This version was meant to be the title cut for the album that both marked a return to a nostalgically desired “angry, difficult sound” and also displayed a new level of maturity and sophistication. It was jettisoned for the similarly titled “When I Was Cruel (No. 2).” It’s a shame this didn’t appear on that album but was instead relegated to a little-known rarities collection (strangely nominated for a Grammy) because it works so well as the record’s mission statement, and shows an artist at war with himself while seeking reconciliation.
David Gorman: Well, I have to admit that I completely missed this song at the time. Ironic, given that our entire mission at Trunkworthy is to jump up and down for the great music and video hiding in plain sight. And thanks, Gary, for pointing me back to this song. Listening now, I agree it should have gotten a more official release because it’s a lost masterpiece and a necessary statement from a musician who has managed to evolve creatively in a business that continues to nostalgically demand a return to something he hasn’t been since mobile phones went on sale.
More broadly, I hear “When I Was Cruel (No. 1)” confronting the reality that, for all the righteous rage and rebellion we can carry in our youth, we eventually mature and develop empathy for those we affect and a sense that the world is a bit more complex than we gave it credit for back when we were able to speak in simple terms of “right” and “wrong.” Morality is no longer a switch to be flipped; it’s a dimmer. But the thing is, nobody wants a love song that replaces passionate obsession with a document of the daily work involved in maintaining a healthy, adult relationship, and nobody shows up to a rally ready to be moved to a place of Socratic consideration for all sides of an issue (Jon Stewart’s “Rally To Restore Sanity” being the exception that proved the rule).
As an artist, you’re expected to stay emotionally frozen in the heated moment your fans first found you, and every reflection of your evolution is met with comparisons to who you once were (or who you were pretending to be). Certainly an artist with a career as long and eclectic as Elvis Costello’s must get sick of the nostalgic expectations forced on him at every turn, and that shows in the way he spits out a few of the lines where he turns away from the mirror and sings directly to his audience.
The conflict laid out here—the appeal of successful but ultimately toxic and unsustainable persona we grew up with versus the mature, complex, but perhaps less immediately exciting person we become—is something made staggeringly personal in Jason Isbell’s song “Live Oak.” Newly and very necessarily sober, the singer is desperately afraid that people—even his wife—won’t find the man he’s become as interesting and appealing. “I wonder who she’s pining for on nights I’m not around, could it be the man who did the things I’m living down?”
I came to “When I Was Cruel” after I had already been brought to tears by “Live Oak” and I think I needed them in that order to appreciate what Costello did so beautifully here. There aren’t a lot of songs that lay out the struggles of personal evolution in a way that’s as messy and conflicted as middle age itself, but when you’re old enough to understand them, they hit hard. “When I Was Cruel (No. 1)” is a reminder that personal evolution is a crucial thing, but the loss that accompanies growth is a double-edged sword. In the case of an artist, not every fan is going to come along for that ride, but I’d rather grow apart from an artist as we both grow up than watch them wither away on the oldies circuit while we both try and pretend that we’re the same people we were . . . or that we’d ever really want to go back.